Musings on Women, Priesthood and Social Darwinism

This was first posted on February 24, 2011.


Sexual separation is often a characteristic of dominant societies. The military, administrative and travelling imperatives of imperialism dictated it and, no less than Sparta or among the Zulu, the training and socialization of the young became increasingly directed towards this end. Public schools, youth organisations, juvenile literature, the club and the army mess were all expressions of it, as were strictly segregated working men’s clubs and school staff rooms. In the extending and building of country houses and public buildings of this period,  the provision of the male sanctum became an architectural necessity.

-John M. Mackenzie, Manliness and Morality, Middle-class Masculinity in Britain and America 1800-1940, Manchester University Press, 1987, p 180-181.

social Darwinism.Men and women are segregated in the church organizations, and are so from a young age. The Young Men and Young Women’s programs are evidence of this, but historically, even 10 and 11 year olds were segregated until the advent of the (sometimes) co-mingled Valiant class (I was a Merrie Miss.) Youth organizations, literature, church meetings and MIA activities all segregate young females from males as the males developed authority levels within priesthood ranks. As such, the above statement, whilst written in regard to the social Darwinist aspects of Victorian and Edwardian exclusion of women from big game (authoritative and elite-class) hunting , I think can easily be applied to the segregation still present within Mormon Society.

There are a dozen different applications and definitions in regard to what is now called ‘social Darwinism’, even dating before Darwin’s Origin of the Species.  In defining social Darwinism from masculinity perspective, can be stated that in segregating the sexes, the segregation sustains the elite class of the society.  In the Victorian and Edwardian periods, men went on hunting (sporting) trips that excluded women. In companionship, (not in contradiction or competition), women’s organizations emerged as support groups for the men. This is the period rife with the development and organizing of women’s organizations, including the Relief Society. The important part to understand is that because the women’s organizations are companion organizations to the male sport, hobby or social clubs, the women’s organization sustains the class position of both the women and the men, with the men in the authoritative hierarchy.

An example of this is clear in the Edwardian (Progressive) era Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Boy Scouts were a masculinity and nationalization tool wherein boys were taught how to camp, hunt (prepare for war’s bloodshed), and scout for when their country needed them for war.  Girl Scouts were a feminie organization that taught women how to cook over an open fire, nursing skills and nationalistically-minded service so when war occurred, women could become nurses to assist injured men, grow victory gardens and comfort each other when the men were at war.  (These are broad descriptions. I am well aware that troops are unlike this today, and not all troops globally taught the exact same skills; some of the early female troops taught some ‘manly’ skills, such as fishing.)  Because the girls had specific assignments in an organization that excluded the boys, girls and women could continue to be trained as subordinate support staff in companionship to male organizations.

This is the same era wherein the Relief Society began, so there is no surprise that the Relief Society is understood as a “companion organization” to the Priesthood, just like ladies’ taxidermy clubs were in companionship to their husband’s hunting clubs. Much focus of the Relief Society is in sustaining the priesthood, nourishing fellow women in feminine roles and looking after the home in a manner that can be likened as one that is a lead by a mostly absent male, as the male is engaged in elitist work such as war, providing for his family or giving priesthood service to others. (Mirroring the Victorian male who was away hunting for meat or sport because it retained his status is the elite class, i.e. men must “practice” the priesthood or they may lose religious authority and therefore, status).

If this line of thinking is correct and companion organizations only enforce their status as secondary to the male social hierarchy, then the presence of the Relief Society is just as responsible for the position of women as subordinates as is the priesthood structure. Without the “companionship” of the Relief Society, there would be no infrastructure to support the priesthood class; there would be no subordinate organization. In this argument, without the support of the Relief Society, the exclusivity and privilege of the male-only priesthood would fail.

Apply this thought to the concept of women holding the priesthood. It is clear that priesthood authority is classist in Mormon culture. Women do not sign temple recommends, interview others for worthiness or offer ceremonial blessings in church meetings. Yet, women have compulsory membership in an organization that assigns them as a companions to (supporters of) the priesthood. If women have the priesthood, what comes of the Relief Society? In a classless social structure, is there a need for a subordinate support organization?

There are many directions that this musing can go. But I mostly wondered if the abolition of the Relief Society would cause the male-only priesthood organization to crumble, and finally allow for female priesthood authority. In short, is the continuance of the (female/subordinate/companion-based) Relief Society actually making Mormon women weaker?


Spunky lives in Queensland, Australia. She loves travel and aims to visit as many church branches and wards in the world as possible.

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2 Responses

  1. April says:

    Through luck(?) of the draw, I am writing another lesson on priesthood for our new Young Women lesson series. Here are some things I noticed about these companion youth organizations as I studied the youth priesthood curricula:

    -Young men are identified by their important calling (Aaronic Priesthood). Young Women are identified by their demographic category, as they have no important calling.

    -The objectives for Young Women are passive and receiving: “rely upon priesthood authority” and learn how the priesthood “can bless them.”

    -The objectives for Aaronic Priesthood are active: “act in the office in which he is appointed” and “bless Heavenly Father’s children.” There is no objective for Aaronic Priesthood about learning about how the priesthood can bless them, in spite of the fact that the Young Women’s curriculum states that the priesthood is “used to bless all of [God’s] children equally, both male and female.”

    -There is a lesson for Young Women titled, “How do I honor and uphold the priesthood?” There is no corresponding lesson for Aaronic Priesthood, implying that only young women need honor and uphold the priesthood. Perhaps young men need not uphold the priesthood because they are too busy being the priesthood?

    • spunky says:

      I think you are on to something, April. I was just listening to the Priesthood session of this last conference, and even President Monson used the phrase “thier Priesthood”– as if men own priesthood. I tire so much of priesthood *being* men, rather than men holding priesthood in righteousness for the purpose of service, i.e. “the priesthood”…. likewise, lessons, like the Young Women one you mention, are almost always taught as “how do we help men know we are weak so they need to use priesthood to save us?”

      So long as we keep teaching girls that they need men as leaders, and if men choose to not lead, it is the fault of females not supporting them (i.e. “supporting the priesthood class)”, I believe we will are simply teaching women that all the sins of men are a result of female lack of faith/self-classification/non-support. Just as in modesty rehetoric, we are teaching women that men’s failures are because women aren’t properly supporting men in their roles.

      It just doesn’t make sense.

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